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Do You Really Need Social Media?

Authors seem to have mixed feelings about social media. Is it essential for success? Is it necessary at all?

Last month’s Carnival of the Indies is case-in-point. In a featured article, Frances Caballo debunks common social media misconceptions. She assumes that social media activity is an important aspect of any platform, so authors should try to improve the quality of their online interactions.

In this same issue, Yesenia Vargas of WriterMom offers a different viewpoint: “Too many authors focus on social media and growing their following there rather than focusing on the activities that would truly move their author business forward. Like writing the next book or running a limited time sale with stacked newsletters.” She writes to challenge a different misconception, “that social media is not for selling books or finding new readers.”

I’ve seen both these attitudes before, and both sides make compelling arguments. In the second edition of his book, Let’s Get Digital, David Gaughran discourages authors from spending too much time on social media because platform building is slow and time-consuming.

On the other hand, author and social media expert Kristin Lamb reminds us that while it’s true that social media doesn’t directly lead to sales, that was never the point. Social media isn’t a “magic formula” for success, but part of a long-term business strategy. Online engagement allows authors to grow communities of readers and fellow writers. Social media lets readers get to know authors as people, and if we like authors, we’re more likely to buy their books.

With all this conflicting advice, what’s a poor indie author to do? Jane Friedman to the rescue. She stakes out the middle ground, and reminds authors that social media can “grant power” to people who otherwise may not have opportunities to connect with influencers, let alone become influencers themselves. She also acknowledges that organic discoverability is becoming more difficult as social media practices change. She admits that, “I may be in the tiny minority of people who happen to think social media isn’t 100% critical for an author’s online presence.”

Friedman suggests that authors continue to use social media strategically, but focus more of their time and effort on their blogs and websites. These ultimately drive more traffic and give authors greater control over their content. Though they clearly disagree on social media usage, both Gaughran and Lamb also recommend blogging and maintaining a strong website.

Ultimately, how much you rely on social media depends on what your priorities are, and what resources are available to you. Friedman notes that personal and financial factors affect social media usage. Authors may have more or less time to dedicate to online activity, and they may have competing responsibilities. Financial support and stability matter too—if you’re retired and comfortably living off your pension, you might have different priorities than a young writer struggling to pay off student debt. Authors also might have a strong social network in real life, so growing an online community would be less important.

You should also consider what phase of your writing career you’re in. Vargas suggests that social media is more useful for authors who already have an established readership. Current readers might follow an author to learn about their work and new releases. New writers hoping for discovery are likely to be disappointed and might see more success building a blog archive or website.

If you have the time and means, social media is never a bad idea, though results may vary. How much you use it depends on your own priorities. Kristin Lamb is right – there is no “magic formula.” Be smart, post strategically, and keep your goals in mind. With a little trial-and-error, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

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